Tag Archives: governance

The global study of governance and public policy

Cairney GPP Iran

I was invited by Dr Emamian from the Governance and Policy Think Tank to deliver this short lecture at the first ‘governance and public policy conference’ in Iran. I was unable to attend, so recorded a set of short video presentations supplemented by blog discussion. The topics to be covered include the importance of a scholarly network for policy studies, the need for a set of core policy concepts to act as a technical language for that network, and the need to apply that language to explain shifts in government and regulation towards ‘regulatory governance’.

Please note that my choice to record the videos in my garden (while I look up) seemed good at the time, for some very good reasons that I won’t get into. However, you will see that I become increasingly cold and annoyed at being cold. I can only apologize for my face and the fact that I was too cold to remember to put on my professional voice.

Using shared concepts in a scholarly network of policy researchers

Our aim may be to produce a global network of policy scholars, in two main ways:

  1. To foster meetings and discussion, such as via this conference and others such as the ICPP and ECPR
  2. To make sure that we are talking about the same thing. Most of the theories to which I refer are based on studies of countries like the US and UK. Their prominence contributes to a ‘global north’ perspective which can be useful in the abstract but with uncertain applicability across the globe.

For example, when considering the applicability of US-inspired theories, think about their taken-for-granted assumptions about the nature of a political system, in which leaders in many levels and types of government are elected regularly, there is a constitution guaranteeing a division of powers across legislative-executive-judicial branches and between federal/subnational levels, and people describe a ‘pluralist’ system in which many groups mobilise and counter-mobilise to influence policy.

What happens when we stop taking this political context for granted? Do these theories remain as relevant?

Which concepts do we use?

I describe two main abstract concepts then invite you to think about how to apply them in more concrete circumstances.

  1. Bounded rationality, not comprehensive rationality.

No-one can understand fully the world in which we live. Individuals can only understand and pay attention to a tiny part of key aspects of the world such as political systems.

Indeed, a handy phrase to remember is that almost all people must ignore almost everything almost all of the time.

Yet, they must make choices despite uncertainty, perhaps by adopting ‘fast and frugal’ heuristics. In other words, we may see all human choices as flawed when compared with an ideal of perfect decision-making. On the other hand, we may marvel at the ways in which humans make often-good choices despite their limitations.

Individual policymakers use two short-cuts to gather enough information to make choices:

  • ‘Rational’, in which they adopt measures to ensure that they have good enough information to inform decisions. For example, they prioritise certain written sources of information and draw on people they consider to be experts.
  • ‘Irrational’, in which they rely on things like gut instinct, habit, and emotion to make snap decisions.

In that context, policy scholarship involves the study of how people make and influence those choices. One part is about the role of evidence, in which people produce information to reduce uncertainty about the nature of the world. However, the more important study is of how people understand the world in the first place. As policy scholars, we focus on ambiguity, to describe the many ways in which people choose to understand the same problems, and the exercise of power to influence those choices.

  1. A complex policymaking environment, not a policy cycle.

Things get more complicated when we move from the analysis of (a) key individuals to (b) the interaction between many individuals and organisations in a complex policymaking ‘system’ or ‘environment’. Policy scholars describe this environment in many different ways, using different concepts, but we can identify a core set of terms on which to focus:

  • Actors. There are many policy influencers and policymakers in many authoritative venues spread across many levels and types of government.
  • Institutions. Each venue has its own rules, including the formal, written-down, and easy to understand rules, versus the informal norms, cultures, and practices which are difficult to identify and describe.
  • Networks. Policymakers and influencers form relationships based on factors such as trust, authority, and the exchange of resources such as information and support.
  • Ideas. People communicate their beliefs, about policy problems and potential solutions, within a wider understanding of the world (often described as a paradigm or hegemony). Some of that understanding is taken-for-granted and not described, and people limit their analysis and argument according to the ways in which they think other people see the world.
  • Socioeconomic context and events. Policymakers often have to respond to policy conditions and events over which they have limited control, such geographic, demographic, and economic factors. These factors help produce non-routine ‘events’ alongside more predictable events such as elections (or other means to ensure a change of government).

In that context, policy scholarship focuses on producing theories to explain what happens when policymakers have limited control over their political systems and policymaking environments.

How far do these concepts travel?

As you can see, these concepts are widely applicable because they are abstract. What happens when we try to apply them to specific countries or case studies? For example:

  1. We talk about policymakers using cognitive, moral, and emotional shortcuts, but those shortcuts can vary profoundly across the globe.
  2. Each political system has a different collection of authoritative venues, formal and informal rules of politics, networks of power, ways to describe how the world works and should work, and socioeconomic context.

This is where our global network becomes valuable, to help us describe how we make sense of the same concepts in very different ways, and consider the extent to which such discussions are comparable.

Example: how do governments address an ‘era of governance’?

One way to foster such discussion is to consider how governments address the limits to their powers. These limits are described in many different ways, from a focus on ‘complexity’ and policy outcomes which ‘emerge’ from local activity (despite attempts by central governments to control outcomes), to a focus on the shift from ‘government’ to ‘governance’.

As policy scholars, we can make several useful distinctions to describe these dynamics, such as to separate an actual shift in policymaking from government to governance, versus a shift in the way we now describe government.

Or, we can separate how governments can, do, and should address the limits to their powers.

I’d say that most policy scholarship focuses on how governments operate: how they actually address problems and what are the – intended and unintended – consequences.

However, these studies are trying to describe the tensions between what governments can do, given the limits I describe, and what they think they should do, given their position of authority and their need to describe their success.

For example, some systems may be more conducive to the support for ‘polycentric governance’, in which many authoritative venues cooperate to address problems, while others are built on the idea of central control and the concentration of authority in a small group of actors.

Therefore, the study of actual policymaking and outcomes will vary markedly according to the ways in which government actors feel they need to assert an image of control over a policy environment which is almost immune to control.

Perhaps an ‘era of governance’ describes some recognition by many governments that they need to find new ways to address their limited control over policy outcomes, both domestically and globally. However, an enduring theme in political science and policy studies is that we do not explain policymaking well if we restrict our attention to the ‘rational’ decisions of a small number of actors. Let’s not make too many assumptions about their power and motive.

Further reading:

The New Policy Sciences

How to Communicate Effectively with Policymakers

The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking

Comparison of Theories of the Policy Process

Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words.

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A 5-step strategy to make evidence count

5 stepsLet’s imagine a heroic researcher, producing the best evidence and fearlessly ‘speaking truth to power’. Then, let’s place this person in four scenarios, each of which combines a discussion of evidence, policy, and politics in different ways.

  1. Imagine your hero presents to HM Treasury an evidence-based report concluding that a unitary UK state would be far more efficient than a union state guaranteeing Scottish devolution. The evidence is top quality and the reasoning is sound, but the research question is ridiculous. The result of political deliberation and electoral choice suggests that your hero is asking a research question that does not deserve to be funded in the current political climate. Your hero is a clown.
  2. Imagine your hero presents to the Department of Health a report based on the systematic review of multiple randomised control trials. It recommends that you roll out an almost-identical early years or public health intervention across the whole country. We need high ‘fidelity’ to the model to ensure the correct ‘dosage’ and to measure its effect scientifically. The evidence is of the highest quality, but the research question is not quite right. The government has decided to devolve this responsibility to local public bodies and/ or encourage the co-production of public service design by local public bodies, communities, and service users. So, to focus narrowly on fidelity would be to ignore political choices (perhaps backed by different evidence) about how best to govern. If you don’t know the politics involved, you will ask the wrong questions or provide evidence with unclear relevance. Your hero is either a fool, naïve to the dynamics of governance, or a villain willing to ignore governance principles.        
  3. Imagine two fundamentally different – but equally heroic – professions with their own ideas about evidence. One favours a hierarchy of evidence in which RCTs and their systematic review is at the top, and service user and practitioner feedback is near the bottom. The other rejects this hierarchy completely, identifying the unique, complex relationship between practitioner and service user which requires high discretion to make choices in situations that will differ each time. Trying to resolve a debate between them with reference to ‘the evidence’ makes no sense. This is about a conflict between two heroes with opposing beliefs and preferences that can only be resolved through compromise or political choice. This is, oh I don’t know, Batman v Superman, saved by Wonder Woman.
  4. Imagine you want the evidence on hydraulic fracturing for shale oil and gas. We know that ‘the evidence’ follows the question: how much can we extract? How much revenue will it produce? Is it safe, from an engineering point of view? Is it safe, from a public health point of view? What will be its impact on climate change? What proportion of the public supports it? What proportion of the electorate supports it? Who will win and lose from the decision? It would be naïve to think that there is some kind of neutral way to produce an evidence-based analysis of such issues. The commissioning and integration of evidence has to be political. To pretend otherwise is a political strategy. Your hero may be another person’s villain.

Now, let’s use these scenarios to produce a 5-step way to ‘make evidence count’.

Step 1. Respect the positive role of politics

A narrow focus on making the supply of evidence count, via ‘evidence-based policymaking’, will always be dispiriting because it ignores politics or treats political choice as an inconvenience. If we:

  • begin with a focus on why we need political systems to make authoritative choices between conflicting preferences, and take governance principles seriously, we can
  • identify the demand for evidence in that context, then be more strategic and pragmatic about making evidence count, and
  • be less dispirited about the outcome.

In other words, think about the positive and necessary role of democratic politics before bemoaning post-truth politics and policy-based-evidence-making.

Step 2. Reject simple models of evidence-based policymaking

Policy is not made in a cycle containing a linear series of separate stages and we won’t ‘make evidence count’ by using it to inform our practices.


You might not want to give up the cycle image because it presents a simple account of how you should make policy. It suggests that we elect policymakers then: identify their aims, identify policies to achieve those aims, select a policy measure, ensure that the selection is legitimised by the population or its legislature, identify the necessary resources, implement and then evaluate. Or, policymakers aided by expert policy analysts make and legitimise choices, skilful public servants carry them out, and, policy analysts assess the results using evidence.

One compromise is to keep the cycle then show how messy it is in practice:

However, there comes a point when there is too much mess, and the image no longer helps you explain (a) to the public what you are doing, or (b) to providers of evidence how they should engage in political systems. By this point, simple messages from more complicated policy theories may be more useful.

Or, we may no longer want a cycle to symbolise a single source of policymaking authority. In a multi-level system, with many ‘centres’ possessing their own sources of legitimate authority, a single and simple policy cycle seems too artificial to be useful.

Step 3. Tell a simple story about your evidence

People are ‘cognitive misers’ seeking ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to gather information for action, so you won’t get far if you bombard them with too much evidence. Policymakers already have too much evidence and they seek ways to reduce their cognitive load, relying on: (a) trusted sources of concise evidence relevant to their aims, and (b) their own experience, gut instinct, beliefs, and emotions.

The implication of both shortcuts is that we need to tell simple and persuasive stories about the substance and implications of the evidence we present. To say that ‘the evidence does not speak for itself’ may seem trite, but I’ve met too many people who assume naively that it will somehow ‘win the day’. In contrast, civil servants know that the evidence-informed advice they give to ministers needs to relate to the story that government ministers tell to the public.


Step 4.  Tailor your story to many audiences

In a complex or multi-level environment, one story to one audience (such as a minister) is not enough. If there are many key sources of policymaking authority – including public bodies with high autonomy, organisations and practitioners with the discretion to deliver services, and service users involved in designing services – there are many stories being told about what we should be doing and why. We may convince one audience and alienate (or fail to inspire) another with the same story.

Step 5. Clarify and address key dilemmas with political choice, not evidence

Let me give you one example of the dilemmas that must arise when you combine evidence and politics to produce policy: how do you produce a model of ‘evidence based best practice’ which combines evidence and governance principles in a consistent way? Here are 3 ideal-type models which answer the question in very different ways

Table 1 Three ideal types EBBP

The table helps us think through the tensions between models, built on very different principles of good evidence and governance.

In practice, you may want to combine different elements, perhaps while arguing that the loss of consistency is lower than the gain from flexibility. Or, the dynamics of political systems limit such choice or prompt ad hoc and inconsistent choices.

I built a lot of this analysis on the experiences of the Scottish Government, which juggles all three models, including a key focus on improvement method in its Early Years Collaborative.

However, Kathryn Oliver and I show that the UK government faces the same basic dilemma and addresses it in similar ways.

The example freshest in my mind is Sure Start. Its rationale was built on RCT evidence and systematic review. However, its roll-out was built more on local flexibility and service design than insistence on fidelity to a model. More recently, the Troubled Families programme initially set the policy agenda and criteria for inclusion, but increasingly invites local public bodies to select the most appropriate interventions, aided by the Early Intervention Foundation which reviews the evidence but does not insist on one-best-way. Emily St Denny and I explore these issues further in our forthcoming book on prevention policy, an exemplar case study of a field in which it is difficult to know how to ‘make evidence count’.

If you prefer a 3-step take home message:

  1. I think we use phrases like ‘impact’ and ‘make evidence count’ to reflect a vague and general worry about a decline in respect for evidence and experts. Certainly, when I go to large conferences of scientists, they usually tell a story about ‘post-truth’ politics.
  2. Usually, these stories do not acknowledge the difference between two different explanations for an evidence-policy gap: (a) pathological policymaking and corrupt politicians, versus (b) complex policymaking and politicians having to make choices despite uncertainty.
  3. To produce evidence with ‘impact’, and know how to ‘make evidence count’, we need to understand the policy process and the demand for evidence within it.

*Background. This is a post for my talk at the Government Economic Service and Government Social Research Service Annual Training Conference (15th September 2017). This year’s theme is ‘Impact and Future-Proofing: Making Evidence Count’. My brief is to discuss evidence use in the Scottish Government, but it faces the same basic question as the UK Government: how do you combine principles of evidence quality and governance principles? In other words, if you were in a position to design an (a) evidence-gathering system and (b) a political system, you’d soon find major points of tension between them. Resolving those tensions involves political choice, not more evidence. Of course, you are not in a position to design both systems, so the more complicated question is: how do you satisfy principles of evidence and governance in a complex policy process, often driven by policymaker psychology, over which you have little control?  Here are 7 different ‘answers’.

Powerpoint Paul Cairney @ GES GSRS 2017

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Here’s why there is always an expectations gap in prevention policy

Prevention is the most important social policy agenda of our time. Many governments make a sincere commitment to it, backed up by new policy strategies and resources. Yet, they also make limited progress before giving up or changing tack. Then, a new government arrives, producing the same cycle of enthusiasm and despair. This fundamental agenda never seems to get off the ground. We aim to explain this ‘prevention puzzle’, or the continuous gap between policymaker expectations and actual outcomes.

What is prevention policy and policymaking?

When engaged in ‘prevention’, governments seek to:

  1. Reform policy. To move from reactive to preventive public services, intervening earlier in people’s lives to ward off social problems and their costs when they seem avoidable.
  2. Reform policymaking. To (a) ‘join up’ government departments and services to solve ‘wicked problems’ that transcend one area, (b) give more responsibility for service design to local public bodies, stakeholders, ‘communities’ and service users, and (c) produce long term aims for outcomes, and reduce short term performance targets.
  3. Ensure that policy is ‘evidence based’.

Three reasons why they never seem to succeed

We use well established policy theories/ studies to explain the prevention puzzle.

  1. They don’t know what prevention means. They express a commitment to something before defining it. When they start to make sense of it, they find out how difficult it is to pursue, and how many controversial choices it involves.
  2. They engage in a policy process that is too complex to control. They try to share responsibility with many actors and coordinate action to direct policy outcomes, without the ability to design those relationships and control policy outcomes. Yet, they need to demonstrate to the electorate that they are in control. When they make sense of policymaking, they find out how difficult it is to localise and centralise.
  3. They are unable and unwilling to produce ‘evidence based policymaking’. Policymakers seek ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to gather enough information to make ‘good enough’ decisions. When they seek evidence on preventing problems before they arise, they find that it is patchy, inconclusive, often counter to their beliefs, and unable to provide a ‘magic bullet’ to help make and justify choices.

Who knows what happens when they address these problems at the same time?

We draw on empirical and comparative UK and devolved government analysis to show in detail how policymaking differs according to the (a) type of government, (b) issue, and (c) era in which they operate.

Although it is reasonable to expect policymaking to be very different in, for example, the UK versus Scottish, or Labour versus Conservative governments, and in eras of boom versus austerity, a key part of our research is to show that the same basic ‘prevention puzzle’ exists at all times. You can’t simply solve it with a change of venue or government.

Our UK book will be out in 2018, with new draft chapters appearing here soon. Our longer term agenda – via IMAJINE – is to examine how policymakers try to reduce territorial inequalities across Europe partly by pursuing prevention and reforming public services.


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Week 2. Two stories of British politics: the Westminster model versus Complex Government #POLU9UK

I want you to think about the simple presentation of complex thought.

  • How do we turn a world which seems infinitely complex into an explanation which describes that world in a few minutes or seconds?
  • How do we choose the information on which to focus, at the expense of all other information, and generate support for that choice?
  • How do we persuade other people to act on that information?

To that end, this week we focus on two stories of politics, and next month you can use these questions to underpin your coursework.

Imagine the study of British politics as the telling of policymaking stories.

We can’t understand or explain everything about politics. Instead, we turn a complex world into a set of simple stories in which we identify, for example, the key actors, events and outcomes. Maybe we’ll stick to dry description, or maybe we’ll identify excitement, heroes, villains, and a moral. Then, we can compare these tales, to see if they add up to a comprehensive account of politics, or if they give us contradictory stories and force us to choose between them.

As scholars, we tell these stories to help explain what is happening, and do research to help us decide which story seems most convincing. However, we also study policymakers who use such stories to justify their action, or the commentators using them to criticise the ineffectiveness of those policymakers. So, one intriguing and potentially confusing prospect is that we can tell stories about policymakers (or their critics) who tell misleading stories!

Remember King Canute (Cnut)

King Canute


If you’re still with me, have a quick look at Hay’s King Canute article (or my summary of it). Yes, that’s right: he got a whole article out of King Canute. I couldn’t believe it either. I was gobsmacked when I realised how good it was too. For our purposes, it highlights three things:

  1. We’ll use the same shorthand terms – ‘Westminster model’, ‘complex government’ – but let’s check if we tell the same stories in the same way.
  2. Let’s check if we pick the same moral. For example, if ministers don’t get what they want, is it because of bad policymaking or factors outside of their control? Further, are we making empirical evaluations and/or moral judgements?
  3. Let’s identify how policymakers tell that story, and what impact the telling has on the outcome. For example, does it help get them re-elected? Does the need or desire to present policymaking help or hinder actual policymaking? Is ‘heresthetic’ a real word?

The two stories

This week, we’ll initially compare two stories about British politics: the Westminster Model and Complex Government. I present them largely as contrasting accounts of politics and policymaking, but only to keep things simple at first.

One is about central control in the hands of a small number of ministers. It contains some or all of these elements, depending on who is doing the telling:

  1. Key parts of the Westminster political system help concentrate power in the executive. Representative democracy is the basis for most participation and accountability. The UK is a unitary state built on parliamentary sovereignty and a fusion of executive and legislature, not a delegation or division of powers. The plurality electoral system exaggerates single party majorities, the whip helps maintain party control of Parliament, the government holds the whip, and the Prime Minister controls membership of the government.
  2. So, you get centralised government and you know who is in charge and therefore to blame.

Another is about the profound limits to the WM:

  1. No-one seems to be in control. The huge size and reach of government, the potential for ministerial ‘overload’ and need to simplify decision-making, the blurry boundaries between the actors who make and influence policy, the multi-level nature of policymaking, and, the proliferation of rules and regulations, many of which may undermine each other, all contribute to this perception.
  2. If elected policymakers can’t govern from the centre, you don’t get top-down government.

What is the moral of these stories?

For us, a moral relates to (a) how the world works or should work, (b) what happens when it doesn’t work in the way we expect, (c) who is to blame for that, and/ or (d) what we should do about it.

For example, what if we start with the WM as a good thing: you get strong, decisive, and responsible government and you know who is in charge and therefore to blame. If it doesn’t quite work out like that, we might jump straight to pragmatism: if elected policymakers can’t govern from the centre, you don’t get strong and decisive government, it makes little sense to blame elected policymakers for things outside of their control, and so we need more realistic forms of accountability (including institutional, local, and service-user).

Who would buy that story though? We need someone to blame!

Yet, things get complicated when you try to identify a moral built on who to blame for it:

There is a ‘universal’ part of the story, and it is difficult to hold a grudge against the universe. In other words, think of the aspects of policymaking that seem to relate to limitations such as ‘bounded rationality’. Ministers can only pay attention to a fraction of the things for which they are formally in charge. So, they pay disproportionate attention to a small number of issues and ignore the rest. They delegate responsibility for those tasks to civil servants, who consult with stakeholders to produce policy. Consequently, there is a blurry boundary between formal responsibility and informal influence, often summed up by the term governance rather than government. A huge number of actors are involved in the policy process and it is difficult to separate their effects. Instead, think of policy outcomes as the product of collective action, only some of which is coordinated by central government. Or, policy outcomes seem to ‘emerge’ from local practices and rules, often despite central government attempts to control them.

There is UKspecific part of the story, but it’s difficult to blame policymakers that are no longer in government. UK Governments have exacerbated the ‘governance problem’, or the gap between an appearance of central control and what central governments can actually do. A collection of administrative reforms from the 1980s, many of which were perhaps designed to reassert central government power, has reinforced a fragmented public landscape and a periodic sense that no one is in control. Examples include privatisation, civil service reforms, and the use of quangos and non-governmental organisations to deliver policies. Further, a collection of constitutional reforms has shifted power up to the EU and down to devolved and regional or local authorities.

How do policymakers (and their critics) tell these stories, how should they tell them, and what is the effect in each case?

Let’s see how many different stories we can come up with, perhaps with reference to specific examples. Their basic characteristics might include:

  • Referring primarily to the WM, to blame elected governments for not fulfilling their promises or for being ineffectual. If they are in charge, and they don’t follow through, it’s their fault linked to poor judgement.
  • Referring to elements of both stories, but still blaming ministers. Yes, there are limits to central control but it’s up to ministers to overcome them.
  • Referring to elements of both stories, and blaming other people. Ministers gave you this task, so why didn’t you deliver?
  • Referring to CG, and blaming more people. Yes, there are many actors, but why the hell can’t they get together to fix this?
  • Referring to CG and wondering if it makes sense to blame anyone in particular. It’s the whole damn system! Government is a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.

Joe Pesci JFK the system

In broader terms, let’s discuss what happens when our two initial stories collide: when policymakers need to find a way to balance a pragmatic approach to complexity and the need to describe their activities in a way that the public can understand and support.

For example, do they try to take less responsibility for policy outcomes, to reflect their limited role in complex government, and/ or try to reassert central control, on the assumption that they may as well be more influential if they will be held responsible?

The answer, I think, is that they try out lots of solutions at the same time:

  • They try to deliver as many manifesto promises as possible, and the manifesto remains a key reference point for ministers and civil servants.
  • They often deal with ‘bounded rationality’ by making quick emotional and moral choices about ‘target populations’ before thinking through the consequences
  • In cases of ‘low politics’ they might rely on policy communities and/ or seek to delegate responsibility to other public bodies
  • In cases of ‘high politics’, they need to present an image of governing competence based on central control, so they intervene regularly
  • Sometimes low politics becomes high politics, and vice versa, so they intervene on an ad hoc basis before ignoring important issues for long periods.
  • They try to delegate and centralise simultaneously, for example via performance management based on metrics and targets.

We might also talk, yet again, about Brexit. If Brexit is in part a response to these problems of diminished control, what stories can we identify about how ministers plan to take it back? What, for example, are the Three Musketeers saying these days? And how much control can they take back, given that the EU is one small part of our discussion?

Illustrative example: (1) troubled families

I can tell you a quick story about ‘troubled families’ policy, because I think it sums up neatly the UK Government’s attempt to look in control of a process over which it has limited influence:

  • It provides a simple story with a moral about who was to blame for the riots in England in 2011: bad parents and their unruly children (and perhaps the public sector professionals being too soft on them).
  • It sets out an immediate response from the centre: identify the families, pump in the money, turn their lives around.
  • But, if you look below the surface, you see the lack of control: it’s not that easy to identify ‘troubled families’, the government relies on many local public bodies to get anywhere, and few lives are actually being ‘turned around’.
  • We can see a double whammy of ‘wicked problems’: the policy problem often seems impervious to government action, and there is a lack of central control of that action.
  • So, governments focus on how they present their action, to look in control even when they recognise their limits.

Illustrative example: (2) prevention and early intervention

If you are still interested by this stage, look at this issue in its broader context, of the desire of governments to intervene early in the lives of (say) families to prevent bad things happening. With Emily St Denny, I ask why governments seem to make a sincere commitment to this task but fall far shorter than they expected. The key passage is here:

“Our simple answer is that, when they make a sincere commitment to prevention, they do not know what it means or appreciate scale of their task. They soon find a set of policymaking constraints that will always be present. When they ‘operationalise’ prevention, they face several fundamental problems, including: the identification of ‘wicked’ problems (Rittell and Webber, 1973) which are difficult to define and seem impossible to solve; inescapable choices on how far they should go to redistribute income, distribute public resources, and intervene in people’s lives; major competition from more salient policy aims which prompt them to maintain existing public services; and, a democratic system which limits their ability to reform the ways in which they make policy. These problems may never be overcome. More importantly, policymakers soon think that their task is impossible. Therefore, there is high potential for an initial period of enthusiasm and activity to be replaced by disenchantment and inactivity, and for this cycle to be repeated without resolution”.

Group exercise.

Here is what I’ll ask you to do this week:

  • Describe the WM and CG stories in some depth in your groups, then we’ll compare your accounts.
  • Think of historical and contemporary examples of decision-making which seem to reinforce one story or the other, to help us decide which story seems most convincing in each case.
  • Try to describe the heroes/ villains in these stories, or their moral. For example, if the WM doesn’t explain the examples you describe, what should policymakers do about it? Will we only respect them if they refuse to give up, like Forest Gump or the ‘never give up, never surrender’ guy in Galaxy Quest? Or, if we would like to see pragmatic politicians, how would we sell their behaviour as equally heroic?


Filed under POLU9UK, public policy, UK politics and policy

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Complex Systems

complexity za

(podcast download)

There is an unnecessary tendency for proponents of complexity theory to say that it is radically new; a scientific revolution; that it will change the way we think about, and study, the natural and social world. It suggests that we shift our analysis from individual parts of a system to the system as a whole; as a network of elements that interact and combine to produce systemic behaviour that cannot be broken down merely into the actions of its constituent parts. The metaphor of a microscope or telescope, in which we zoom in to analyse individual components or zoom out to see the system as a whole, sums up this alleged shift of approach.

Complexity theory has been applied to a wide range of activity, from the swarming behaviour of bees, the weather and the function of the brain, to social and political systems.  The argument is that all such systems have common properties, including:

  1. A complex system is greater than the sum of its parts; those parts are interdependent – elements interact with each other, share information and combine to produce systemic behaviour.
  2. Some attempts to influence complex systems are dampened (negative feedback) while others are amplified (positive feedback). Small actions can have large effects and large actions can have small effects.
  3. Complex systems are particularly sensitive to initial conditions that produce a long-term momentum or ‘path dependence’.
  4. They exhibit ‘emergence’, or behaviour that results from the interaction between elements at a local level rather than central direction.
  5. They may contain ‘strange attractors’ or demonstrate extended regularities of behaviour which may be interrupted by short bursts of change.

As you might expect from a theory of many things, the language is vague and needs some interpretation in each field. In the policymaking field, the identification of a complex system is often used to make the following suggestions:

  • Law-like behaviour is difficult to identify – so a policy that was successful in one context may not have the same effect in another.
  • Policymaking systems are difficult to control; policy makers should not be surprised when their policy interventions do not have the desired effect.
  • Policy makers in the UK have been too driven by the idea of order, maintaining rigid hierarchies and producing top-down, centrally driven policy strategies.  An attachment to performance indicators, to monitor and control local actors, may simply result in policy failure and demoralised policymakers.
  • Policymaking systems or their environments change quickly. Therefore, organisations must adapt quickly and not rely on a single policy strategy.

On this basis, there is a tendency in the literature to encourage the delegation of decision-making to local actors:

  1. Rely less on central government driven targets, in favour of giving local organisations more freedom to learn from their experience and adapt to their rapidly-changing environment.
  2. To deal with uncertainty and change, encourage trial-and-error projects, or pilots, that can provide lessons, or be adopted or rejected, relatively quickly.
  3. Encourage better ways to deal with alleged failure by treating ‘errors’ as sources of learning (rather than a means to punish organisations) or setting more realistic parameters for success/ failure.
  4. Encourage a greater understanding, within the public sector, of the implications of complex systems and terms such as ‘emergence’ or ‘feedback loops’.

In other words, this literature, when applied to policymaking, tends to encourage a movement from centrally driven targets and performance indicators towards a more flexible understanding of rules and targets by local actors who are more able to understand and adapt to rapidly-changing local circumstances.

Although complexity theory is described as new, these are familiar arguments in policy studies. Relevant texts in the policymaking literature include punctuated equilibrium theory, historical institutionalism and the following:

Lipsky’s idea of ‘street level bureaucracy’. He suggests that there are so many targets, rules and laws that no public agency or official can be reasonably expected to fulfil them all.  In fact, many may be too vague or even contradictory, requiring ‘street level bureaucrats’ to choose some over others.  The potential irony is that the cumulative pressure from more central government rules and targets effectively provides implementers with a greater degree of freedom to manage their budgets and day-to-day activities. Alternatively, central governments must effectively reduce their expectations by introducing performance measures which relate to a small part of government business (see this discussion of Street Level Organizations https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/2013/09/09/street-level-bureacrats/).

Hjern’s focus on intra-departmental conflict, when central government departments pursue programmes with competing aims, and interdependence, when policies are implemented by multiple organizations. Programmes are implemented through ‘implementation structures’ where ‘parts of many public and private organizations cooperate in the implementation of a programme’. Although national governments create the overall framework of regulations and resources, and there are ‘administrative imperatives’ behind the legislation authorizing a programme, the main shaping of policy takes place at local levels.

Governance.  A lack of central control has prompted governments in the past to embrace New Public Management (NPM) and seek to impose order through hierarchy and targeting. However, local implementation networks (with members from the public, third and private sectors) have often proved not be amenable to such direct control.

Lindblom’s discussion of incrementalism in 1959: ‘Making policy is at best a very rough process. Neither social scientists, nor politicians, nor public administrators yet know enough about the social world to avoid repeated error in predicting the consequences of policy moves. A wise policy-maker consequently expects that his policies will achieve only part of what he hopes and at the same time will produce unanticipated consequences he would have preferred to avoid. If he proceeds through a succession of incremental changes, he avoids serious lasting mistakes’ (or she/ her).

Consequently, we should reject the idea of theoretical novelty for novelty’s sake. The value of complexity theory is not that it is trendy – it is that it allows us to use our knowledge of the natural and social world to understand and influence real world problems.

Where do we go from here?

Empirical issues: How does ‘complexity thinking’ improve our understanding of politics and policymaking?

Normative issues: The language of complexity does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style accountability

See ‘Complexity Theory in Political Science and Public Policy’ PDF Paywall Green and the introduction and conclusion to our Handbook on Complexity and Public Policy.

See also Professor Robert Geyer on Complexity and the Stacey Diagram – http://vimeo.com/25979052

Click on the picture at the top of this post for a nice surprise.

Series: Policy Concepts in 1000 words


Filed under 1000 words, public policy, UK politics and policy